WASHINGTON – U.S. leader Donald Trump will travel to Asia in November for the first time since becoming president, stopping in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines on a trip expected to be dominated by the North Korea nuclear threat.
Joined by his wife, Melania, Trump will travel Nov. 3-14. His visit will include attending two major summits, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vietnam and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations conclave in the Philippines.
An itinerary for the five-nation trip — which also includes a stop in Hawaii — has not been released. But Trump will start the tour with a visit to Japan around Nov. 5 and meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Nov. 6, according to diplomatic sources.
Making Japan the first destination in Asia shows that Trump attaches importance to Washington’s alliance with Tokyo, a U.S. official said. After Japan, the president will travel to South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines in that order.
Trump’s attendance at the Manila summit had been in doubt until recent days, with officials saying he was reluctant to show support for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been responsible for a number of anti-American outbursts.
A U.S. official said Asian leaders who met Trump at the United Nations General Assembly in New York late last month helped persuade him to attend in unity with key Asian allies.
An Asian diplomat welcomed Trump’s decision to visit Manila “because that reassures the region that Asia policy is not just about North Korea, it’s about Southeast Asia as well.”
The diplomat said Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal early this year had raised questions about the administration’s commitment to the region. But visits by senior officials, including the secretaries of state, defense and commerce, and Trump’s planned trip, showed Washington intended to remain engaged.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said Duterte was looking forward to meeting Trump, adding that the relationship between the two countries was so resilient that ties would always recover, regardless of disagreements.
Trump, who has been locked in an increasingly bitter war of words with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, will have the opportunity to bolster allied resolve for what he calls the “complete denuclearization” of Pyongyang.
He has denounced Kim as a “rocket man” on a suicide mission for launches of ballistic missiles and for nuclear weapon tests. He has warned North Korea would face total devastation if it threatens the United States. Kim has blasted Trump as “mentally deranged.”
“The president’s engagements will strengthen the international resolve to confront the North Korean threat and ensure the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the White House said in announcing the trip.
Trump’s visit to China will reciprocate a trip to the United States made in April by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Trump has applied heavy pressure on China to rein in North Korea. While his efforts have had limited success thus far, he went out of his way to thank Xi on Tuesday for his efforts.
“I applaud China for breaking off all banking relationships with North Korea — something that people would have thought unthinkable even two months ago. I want to thank President Xi,” Trump said at a news conference with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
At the same time, Trump’s national security team is conducting a broad review of U.S. strategy toward China in search of ways to counter Chinese trade practices and open up market access, a senior administration official said.
The United States also considers Chinese entities behind the theft of intellectual property and cyberattacks and wants to find ways to address these concerns, the official said.
There was no definite timetable for concluding the review.
“We’re looking at all of it,” the official said.
The trip to Asia also tees up a meeting between Trump and Duterte, who has been accused of “crimes against humanity” for waging a bloody war on drugs that has claimed thousands of lives.
Aides were left trying to convince Trump — who has also been skeptical of multilateral institutions and shown modest interest in Southeast Asia — that it is important to attend.
Fast-growing Southeast Asia has become a focus point for U.S. trade and sits astride a major geopolitical hot spot, the South China Sea.
U.S. governments have tried to defend the right of free passage there as China and other countries make increasingly forceful maritime and territorial claims.
“It would be very noticed — in a negative way — if he did not go, while all the other leaders are there, including the Chinese premier,” said Amy Searight, a former top Pentagon official for Asia, now with the Center for Strategic and international Studies think tank in Washington.
U.S. presidents have not always paid much attention to the ASEAN bloc, which includes the fast-growing economies of Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and five other countries.
Barack Obama was the first president to regularly attend the ASEAN summit, donning flamboyant local shirts and posing arms-linked for photos with leaders as part of his much-vaunted Asia “pivot.”
Trump has taken a wrecking ball to much of Obama’s legacy, including knocking away a key pillar of the pivot by scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which was embraced by many ASEAN partners.